How to Remove Rust from Bike Chain (Updated Nov 2021)

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Whether you are new to cycling or an avid biker you will come across rust on your bike chain sooner or later. It is an inevitable chemical reaction that occurs when a bike chain comes in contact with salt, water, mud and other elements. Fastidious care of your bike can help keep rust from forming, but sometimes even the most careful bike owners will find chain rust.

Look up how to remove rust from bike chain and you will see different prescribed methods. It can be confusing; some sites recommend one method while others tell you that it’s the absolute worst thing you can do. Which one should you follow?

This article looks at the most common methods of how to clean a rusty bike chain. You can try them out one by one. If you find one that works, good for you. If you try one method and it doesn’t work try another one. But first, should you get a new chain or remove rust from your chain?

Rust Removal vs. Buying a New chain

It is important to address this issue. Some people state that cleaning a rusty bike chain is a waste of time and only required when you are bicycle touring. It is an indication that the chain is old/useless and needs to be replaced. Is this true?

Not quite. The decision whether to clean a rusty chain or to buy a new one will depend on the state of the chain itself.

Say, for example, that you bought a bike some time ago which you stored away in your garage. You pull it out and it’s still new, except the chain is rusted. Should you throw away such a chain?

Not quite; both the chain and the bike are in excellent condition, and the only reason why the chain has rusted is how you stored the bike, and your failure to oil the chain on a regular basis. Throwing away a chain like that may not make any sense unless cleaning it hasn’t been of much help.

Cost of New Bike Chain

A new bike chain doesn’t cost much. A good one will cost anything between $20 and $50. For a high-end bike, you may spend as much as $100. If you take the bike to a professional to have the chain replaced it may cost you another $10.

However, it is recommended that you learn how to replace a bike chain as it is one of the easiest things to do on a bike. And of course, if you have an electric bike, then you won’t have a bike chain! 

Learn another simple skill: How to Tighten a Bike Chain

How to get Rust off a Bike Chain

Step 1

  • Inspect the chain and find out how rusty it is. It may be at the beginning stages of rusting, in which case you may not need to remove it in order to clean it, but if the amount of rust is substantial you will have to detach the chain in order to get to rust that may be hidden in small crevices.
  • On inspection, you may realize that the chain is severely rusted. In such a case the best thing to do is replace it. Cleaning it will not be of much help, and the rust may spread to other parts of your bike.

Step 2

  • You will need a degreaser for this step. What is a degreaser and what does it do? With continued use, your chain will accumulate grease and all sorts of gunk on it. The rust forms beneath this layer, so for you to be able to effectively remove it you have to get rid of this extra layer. For that, you need a degreaser.
  • The best degreaser is one that effectively removes grease and other dirt, that is safe for your hands, and also for the environment. One that comes highly recommended is Pedro’s Pig Lube. Green Smoove Prep, Finish Line Citrus Bike Degreaser, WD-40 and Diggers Mineral Turpentine can also be used.
  • You should be careful with degreasers. Check how effective they are by reading reviews, and also look into whether they may do damage. There are some that are excellent at cleaning chains but can damage the surface of the bike. Wear latex gloves every time you handle bike chain degreaser.
  • Handle the degreaser with gloves on at all times. Many of them are harsh and can cause skin damage.
  • Once you have the right degreaser soak a rag in it and run it through the whole chain. If the chain is attached be extra careful to get to all the parts.
  • If you removed the chain you can soak it in the degreaser. Pour it into a clean plastic container, preferably one that hasn’t been used before (any residual chemicals can react and have unexpected results). The duration of soaking will depend on how much rust is on your bike chain. For severe cases, you should soak for at least 24 hours. You can use a rag or soft brush to get the chain completely free of grease.
How to Remove Rust from Bike Chain

Step 3

For this stage, you will need steel wool and lime juice. Lime juice contains citric acid which is excellent at stripping away rust. Both lime juice and steel wool are rough on the hands so make sure you wear latex gloves for this stage.

  • Soak the steel wool in lime juice and then scrub the parts of the chain that are rusted. The wool will get clogged with rust as you clean; discard, get a new piece, soak it in lime juice and keep working.
  • After a few minutes working on the chain, wipe it clean using a soft rag to see how much rust is left. Repeat the process of cleaning and wiping until there is no more rust left.

Step 4

Once all the rust is gone you need to rinse the chain completely to remove all traces of lime juice and steel wool. If you leave even a little it will lead to more rust.

  • Mix a little dish soap and water in a clean basin and then using a clean brush wash the chain clean of all residue. Inspect it as you go along to ensure that there are no spots of rust left.

Step 5

If you hadn’t removed your chain from the drivetrain you can lube it straight away. If you had, you need to reattach it and make sure that it’s moving freely.

Step 6

Lubing your chain is the most important thing you can do after you have cleaned it. If you don’t oil it properly it will rust again, and you will need to repeat the process of cleaning it or replace it altogether.

Lubricating your Bike Chain

Lime juice is an excellent bike chain rust cleaner, but if you don’t take care of the chain after you have cleaned it you can expect problems down the road. The only way to make sure that you don’t deal with rust for a while is to make sure that the chain is properly lubricated.

There are many lubricants on the market, so choose carefully. One brand that is highly recommended is White Lightening – it is affordable and provides effective protection against rust.

The best way to lubricate your bike is to turn it upside down. Pour the lubricant directly onto the chain as you turn the tires so that it can get to all parts of the chain.

Applying too much lubricant isn’t recommended, so give the chain a gentle wipe with a clean cloth to remove excess oil.

How often should I lube my bike chain?

  • It depends on how often you use your bike and where you ride it. If you use your bike more than two or three times a week you should clean and lube the chain at least once a month. As you go through the process check the drivetrain. Clean it of excess grease and debris and add lubricant where needed.
  • You should oil your bike chain to prevent rust if you ride it in conditions such as mud, dirt, rain, and snow. All this can speed up the reaction that causes rusting, so clean your bike immediately after use if you want to avoid rust altogether.
  • If you notice that the chain isn’t moving smoothly or makes creaking noises when you ride it’s time for a clean and lube.

*Check out How to Put Air in Bicycle Tires

Best Bike lubes – Wet vs. Dry

There are two different types of lubes that you can use on your chain. A dry lube is best if you plan to ride in dry conditions; it repels dust and debris and keeps your chain clean for longer. If you will be riding in wet, muddy conditions a wet lube works best as they stick to the chain and prevent the formation of rust.

As you shop for bike chain lube you will notice that there are numerous brands. Review them carefully before you buy to ensure that they perform as stated in the marketing material.

You may feel tempted to use something that resembles bike chain lube, such as motor oil or something as simple as Vaseline. This is a bad idea. Motor oil contains finite particles and chemicals that will damage the chain over time, and Vaseline will not provide the required protection from the elements.

*Check out Tips on How to Clean a Chain on a Bike

Summary

Rust is a part of the biking experience – it will eventually happen however careful you are. When it comes to how to remove rust from a bike chain there are several products that claim to do the job, but nothing beats degreasing and cleaning it using lime juice.

You may find products like WD-40 recommended is some quarters; they may help remove rust but only for a short period. If you really want to keep your chain clean you must degrease it and clean it properly.

Finally, if you don’t lubricate the chain after cleaning you shouldn’t expect the job to hold. Choose your lube carefully, and make sure that it is recommended for bike chains.

If the chain is heavily rusted don’t waste your time cleaning it. It will not work, not to mention the rust may start to affect other parts of the bike such as the drivetrain and frame.